Lived at Westbeth since its opening.
On the night that Moses Gunn showed me how to cut a two-by-four, I was busy building a guest loft over the stairway in my apartment. He and his wife, Gwen, lived down the hall, and because we both had toddlers the same age, we became friends. He had just finished starring as Othello on Broadway and in between acting gigs, he would occasionally stop by the apartment late at night to have a couple of glasses of wine and tell stories of his childhood. His voice so velvet and deep, his diction as elegant as the clothes he wore, it was hard to believe that he had grown up so poor.
That night, Moses on the couch in his gray pressed trousers and cashmere sweater didn’t seem to mind being surrounded by sawdust, plywood, and me going over my plans. Westbeth had described the duplex apartments as two and three bedrooms. But there were no walls, only large movable closets to separate living from sleeping. Everyone complained about how ridiculous this was, but for me the lack of walls was like a blank canvas, a playground. I had grown up building secret hideouts in my parents’ backyard so I naturally took to constantly rebuilding and reconfiguring the apartment. Some days when my husband and kids came home from work and school, they wouldn’t know where they would be sleeping that night. High on a loft over a darkroom. Midway on a platform that looked like a locomotive. Or on the ground in a dungeon with a dragon’s mouth for an entrance. I used electric tools so often that noise complaints from the concert pianist next door filled almost an entire file cabinet drawer in the Management Office.
But that night, while Moses poured more wine and talked about the Negro Ensemble Company, I discovered a huge error in my plans. I had cut the stair supports too long. I desperately wanted to recut, but it was almost 1:30 in the morning and the piano player was probably being a pest by sleeping. Suddenly, I saw a forgotten handsaw lying in a pile of discarded tools. Thinking it wouldn’t make as loud a noise as an electric saw, I immediately grabbed one of the offending two-by-fours, leveled it on the coffee table, and began to saw.
“You’re doing it wrong,” Moses said.
“Huh?” I was always tongue-tied around him.
He stood up. I remembered Moses telling me that his father had been a junkman in St Louis, and that as a boy, Moses would ride beside him on his rickety wagon. Sometimes his job was to repair the wagon when they got back to the stable.
“May I?” he asked, taking the saw from my hands.
“Look here,“ he continued. “You must place your thumb next to the measuring mark you make on the wood, then place the saw right up against your thumb. In this way the saw is held steady and the first notch you make in the wood is straight and true. “
He continued sawing through the wood until the keyed-up piano woman started pounding the wall separating our apartments.
He put down the saw, and we both shrugged. Before he left, he said, “Don’t forget what I told you.”
And I never did.